At the height of my craze for 10,000 Maniacs — circa 1988-1990 — I learned about the band’s pre-major label releases, Human Conflict Number Five and Secrets of the I Ching. All the interviews the band held up to that point pretty much indicated finding copies of these albums would be nigh impossible.
Elektra Records reissued both releases as Hope Chest: The Fredonia Recordings in 1990. Back then, I had this perception that a band’s first albums retroactively represented how they sounded before they signed to a label. Hope Chest corrected that notion pretty quickly.
The jangly folk-rock that marked the Maniacs sound was in a nebulous state on these early recordings. Rob Buck did some pretty experimental stuff with his guitar before settling on his recognizable style of playing. Merchant, still a teen at the time, had none of the confidence that emerged on The Wishing Chair and In My Tribe.
Hope Chest wasn’t impressive. The band sounded deflated, and reviews of the compilation hinted that Elektra meddled needlessly in remixing the material. When Rhino released the career retrospective, Campfire Songs, most of the early recordings were taken from Hope Chest and not The Wishing Chair. I found that disappointing.
Fast forward 25 years, and during one of my record shop visits, I found a vinyl copy of Secrets of the I Ching.
The reviews were right.
The Hope Chest remix drained the punchiness of Secrets of the I Ching. Merchant’s reticence comes across as more demure, and the post-punk vibe in band’s playing come through in greater detail. Hope Chest smoothed these rough edges much to their detriment.
Now that I’ve heard what Hope Chest originally sounded like, I’m a lot more curious about Human Conflict Number Five.
I doubt the clock can be turned back on a future archival release — if there is one — but these early mixes deserve a wider audience. The tougher sound on Secrets of the I Ching makes far more sense as a precursor to The Wishing Chair than Hope Chest had indicated.